This afternoon, I enjoyed reading an overview article by Georges De Schrijver SJ on the history of Latin-American liberation theology. I was not surprised, of course, that the preferential option for the poor takes on a central place in his reflections. But I was struck by the intellectual and practical vulnerability of this idea and reality. How easy it is to pervert its deeper meaning and practice. To avoid that, one of the key insights is that, in the thought of Latin-American theologians of liberation – and Gustavo Gutiérrez is a good example – the preferential option for the poor is always connected to the notion of “sujeto“: the poor become the actors and protagonists of their history, and the preferential option for the poor can only be understood in that perspective. Solidarity, common discernment and practices are not something brought to the poor – that would be a very paternalistic approach -; they arise in the conversation with them and out of their creative and proactive view on the realities that oppress them.
The idea of “sujeto“, in my opinion, adds to what usually in Western philosophy and theology is understood when the expression “subject” is used. This often refers to an autonomous subject, that is free to make its own decision and to decide about its own life. “Sujeto” is involved in a common history, that is being constructed precisely from the perspective of people who cannot decide about their own destiny, who have no voice because their oppression is so strong that their perspectives are smothered. Their “cry” reaches the surface of a voice when deep solidarity is exercised, so that the structures of oppression are recognized and fought against – together. Therefore, there is always a process of reconciliation involved that touches us in our ways to live together. To become a “sujeto” – or to enter into alliance with the poor so as to become “sujeto” together with them – requires from the Western “subject” to enter into a process of conversion, of letting go of autonomy and freedom that are closed on themselves. This is very demanding for all of us.
When that movement of (intellectual and practical) conversion is not endeavoured, the chances for a perversion of the preferential option for the poor become strong. The autonomous, creative “subject” decision maker finds it in its power to decide what to do for the poor and what the poor should do to change their situation. The perverse logic of a marketable gift (“I give you something but that also means that I am in control and that I can tell you what I expect in return from you”) enters into play. One could still speak about a “preferential option for the poor” as one is, indeed, doing something for the poor, and the poor may even profit from this something. But, there is a risk of sell-out in a very paternalistic perspective. The preferential option for the poor requires that we are brothers and sisters to one another, friends who share the same responsibility for the world in which we live together – not that some of us are all powerful fathers and others needy children. When I formulate it this way, one also perceives that the images we have of God enter into play. Too easily, by speaking about God as “Father” or “Mother”, do we think that in our relations with others we also have to be fathers or mothers to the others, that we can play God with regard to the others. We easily forget that the Father-God by becoming our brother, turns us into brothers and sisters of one another. At times we will need fatherly and motherly attitudes towards our brothers and sisters, but that can only be with the clear intention of outgrowing these perversions very quickly.
The Spanish expression “opción preferencial por los pobres” is more complex than the English “preferential option for the poor”. The “por” invites us to read the “for” also as “because of”, suggesting an alliance between brothers and sisters, between friends. We should test all texts that use the expression “preferential option for the poor” on this respect for the alliance and, so, for the creative and pro-active poor.
PS. I feel that I have to add a remark, as I fear that some will say that in what I say appears an idealization of the poor, as if they are the really creative ones, the really good people in our history. But I do not really want to work in terms of abstract intellectual categories of “rich” and “poor” – the point of departure is the reality of the relationships between human beings, relationships that become perverted if and when, in all honesty, we have to describe them as: this one is rich and that one is poor, and there are structures that maintain this state of affairs. The preferential option for the poor addresses a broken alliance between all human beings — the brokenness appears in the fact that in all honesty we have to speak about rich and poor on the basis of the structure of the relationships — and challenges us to restore that alliance out of the fact that we share life and creation, all of us. The cry of the poor reminds us of the brokenness of the alliance and, therefore, of reality; allowing the cry to become a voice by recognizing its creative (non-resentful) potential is the best path to restoring the alliance and reality.